Guest post by George Gray

George Gray in GreeceMost travelers head to Greece to catch a glimpse of the vestiges of classical antiquity, or snap a few pics of those romantic sunsets reflecting off Santorini’s volcanic cliffs. As a delegate for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), an organization focused on protecting and assisting victims of armed conflict, it wasn’t a destination that I ever imagined being sent for work. But in early 2016, as the migrant crisis in Greece entered its second year, I found myself heading to Athens to begin my third mission for the ICRC. While the Old-World setting of the assignment could not have been more idyllic, the work was not easy.
 
The ICRC opened a mission in Greece in 2016 with a focus on three areas of work that speak volumes about the treacherous path that migrants follow: (1) maintaining or restoring lost family contact for migrants; (2) ensuring the proper identification and dignified management of the bodies of shipwreck victims; and (3) ensuring humane treatment and conditions for migrants who are detained under the Greek immigration system.
 
My scope of my job included all three of these areas of work, but most of my time was spent visiting migrants in detention, and working to address problematic issues we discovered. The underlying premise of this work - that asylum seekers would find themselves detained in such significant numbers - was startling for me, and often even for those charged with implementing the detention.
 
One afternoon this past May, about a year into my assignment, my team had been visiting detained migrants on an island just a few miles west of the Turkish coast. Summer comes early in the Mediterranean, and the sun was beating down on the corrugated metal roofs of the pre-fabs where migrants were detained while awaiting deportation. The stifling heat seemed to enforce an economy of movement and thought. Guards lingered silently in what little shade could be found. Conversations with detainees meandered through the thicket of intractable problems they faced. The few hundred detained migrants we were visiting knew their asylum claims had been rejected; hopes of a future in Europe were fading away. The bridge between the ideal and the real, between what was sought and what was found, between the West and the East, seemed impassable.
 
Late in the afternoon, from a box of donated supplies, a soccer ball was found and inflated. A few detainees started kicking around the ball. My translator and I joined the game. A couple wayward passes, and some guards joined the unlikely fraternization. Soon a real game of soccer blossomed, and shouts and laughter broke the stale quiet. It felt a bit like the Christmas truce on the Western Front - an evanescent communion found around a simple game. This group of humans - their fates so separated by nationality, by language, and by law - found common ground on an elemental pleasure of life. The moment of joy was a small one, considering the big picture. But it is one that will stay with me.
 
When not on missions with the ICRC, George practices criminal law in Toronto, Ontario. (www.georgegray.ca)